How yoga helps … a hint on what to expect in Yoga for Mood Management, on April 15

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

Today, my anxiety and depression are cured. It’s a functional cure. It works for the hour, or for two, or four, or for the day.
I have managed and at times slayed my depression and anxiety with exercise, for the past three decades and then some. My cure is functional: a “functional cure” is something that the medical community quips, usually to describe a pharmaceutical treatment. Yoga is that, for me. And my daily cure has been yoga, or running, or hiking, or step aerobics, or swimming.
Exercise in any rigorous and regular form is that, for me. It is a functional cure.
The best doctors will confirm that: if you exercise, your depression and your anxiety will be lessened. If you have severe forms of the physiological glitch that is anxiety-and-depression, medication may be needed at times, or all the time. But yoga can accompany that treatment, serving as a powerful complementary “medicine.”  
As I have moved and breathed for the three decades that depression and anxiety have bullied me, I have learned what helps. Yoga is ideal. My study and practice has taught me that the physiological state of the body often matches the physiological state of the mind. We slouch, protecting internal organs, and the body hears the message: your action of slouching tells the body that the organs need protection. The mind hears the body, and perceives a threat. It reacts. It releases stress-hormones to assist in confronting the threat. That release will exhaust you.
Yoga is a reset for that messaging of the mind and body. In yoga poses, we open the chest. That opening tells the mind that the organs do not need protection from slouching — that it’s okay to feel calm. We stand in Warrior II, in a body position that message the mind — “I am unafraid.” The subconscious mind hears our message, and depression lifts. We curl up in the fetal position in Child’s pose, and the body hears that we are safe in our mother’s womb. We are enveloped and protected, and awash with calm. We recline in savasana, and the subconscious mind says we are feeling safe and trusting enough to close our eyes: so, all must be well.
If you have the medical version of anxiety and depression, yoga and exercise cannot cure you permanently. But yoga can help: I can show you the toolbox that I go to, in yoga, to calm my mind and lift my spirits. It is physiological manipulation where we move in flowing motions, breathe as if all is well, and train the mind to quiet itself, even under trying circumstances.
With enough practice, you may find that of all of the exercise-options, proven by countless studies to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression, this one — this yoga — it has something more.
On April 15, from 2-4 at Movement Arts on Camano Island, I will hold a workshop, teaching the tools that I use in yoga, to manage anxiety and depression. We will not talk about our feelings: we will not “share” why we are depressed or anxious, because I am not a counselor. I am the child of two addictions counselors. I respect the talk-therapy craft. But yoga is not talk-therapy. It is the deepest form of inner silence.
Yoga can help you do what Patanjali teaches, in the yoga sutras:

“Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of one’s conciousness.” 

Come practice with me. I promise I will not pressure you to share your private thoughts. I also promise that the movement and breathing and stillness-seeking yoga offers can calm the mind. I have done a nearly two-decade-long study, with just one subject: me. 

I’ll see you there. 


Mock palm trees & mocktails

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

It is nearing spring but it feels like winter. A mix of snow and rain are dropping heavily on newly emerged crocus petals, causing them to droop. It is as if the sky is writing a poem about the year: rain mixed with snow, chilling a sometimes sunny season, in a year full of unraveled ends and new beginnings.

Life has categories. Home. Family. Friends. Work. Mental endeavors. Memories. Hopes. Plans. Events. Politics. Problems. Those categories create a mental buzz that is at times hard to slow, and harder to pause. I work sometimes to meld it all into a singular, continuous set of moments. At times, one category is up, one is down. One part is running smoothly, the other is in need of action.

Often, I stand solidly in the middle of it all, panning with an inventory-gaze then a nod, before moving on to the next to-do. Sometimes I apply effort to parse it, and figure out what is next, because intention shapes the moments to-come.

Sometimes I just take a moment to gaze at the “palm trees.” On my Island, there are mock palm trees outside of the studio where I teach yoga. I suppose they have some technical name, but I don’t really care what that name is — they look like palm trees. It is Sunday, and today I taught a combination flow-and-Yin to my most joyous student, who I once held in my arms as she played tug-o-war with my hair, then attempted to bite my nose. In the background I can hear a booming voice that sounds much like a grown man, but isn’t. I recall his first kick, issued at the interior of my bellybutton.

Today, I made the day a pause.

At times, my roles spin and I get that sensation of perpetual motion, without a pause. Other times one, a pause within a moment can be so intense it creates a bubble; as if an invisible circle is being drawn around my “now,” just to demonstrate how imperative that moment truly is.

There will never be another “now.”

On this Sunday, I sipped a mocktail of apple cider and ginger ale, that the joyous student has made, just for me. It is a day full of nothing remarkable, and remarkable in just that: its silence and its calm, all playing out on an Island with “palm trees.” It is cold, snowing, and muddy outside. But that really doesn’t matter. Unremarkable days can parallel a tropical paradise, if you just give that “now” your full attention.

In my yoga classes, we have been working the pause: in the breath, and in the poses. In one moment, then the next, we watch a freeze-frame of “now.” Partial entry to DownDog. Pause. One more phase into the pose. Pause. In the pose fully, scan, pause. Inhabit it. Live it. Breathe.

Practice pauses on the mat and your brain chemistry and body-memory will react off-the-mat. Living now-by-now, one-moment-by-one. Pausing as a punctuated end of a moment; parsing out a section of life that is palpable and more finely viewed. Better defined. A beginning to a breath. An end to a breath. Some sort of order to the chaos of life.

My past  year has been full of pauses — some that I saw, others I missed. The human mind is dismissive and racing — we apply steadiness and calm, with practice. My past decade had even more moments that raced by and filled the world I perceive. Not all moments were invited and embraced — some were ones I would have liked to avoid. I have, like many other people, watched both moments and people come and go. Tried to experience more than mourn. Tried to solve more than fret. It has led me to a revelation of what I am doing in yoga: We are handed a myriad of choices — we flow with life or we fight it. No one answer is right for every moment. Courage is defined by knowing which choice to make, at which moment.

Life cannot always be calm. We practice so that we’re steady, knowing when to surrender and when to fight.

I can’t always see the moments with pristine clarity, like I did this Sunday. But I come back to  yoga again and again, knowing that The Practice is fierce: a daily cultivation toward a mind that lives every moment to its fullest. Yoga switches on intuition and satya, and daily practice keeps it on.

I find my moments both louder and more quiet, with yoga as my constant passenger. I hope you do too. Now go find your pause, in your moment and in your pose. Go on vacation today — sip a “cocktail” and live among the “palm trees.”

Weather & Closures

Let it snow? But it’s February. Ah, that groundhog was right.

Both of my locations follow Stanwood School District closures, for inclement weather. Please check ahead, and don’t fight your way through the snow! It is possible that this Tuesday’s step aerobics classes at Camano Center will be cancelled, due to weather. If it warms up and melts, I’ll be wrong. If it stays cold keeps looking like the set to a Christmas-movie, we can pick it up next week!

Stay safe and stay warm! A suggestion if you are homebound from the weather, watch Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie. It’s a great mental-addition to your yoga practice: it examines the sacred importance of the present moment.

Ripples of stillness & strength

By Jana
Yoga Instructor

It’s nearly October, and I’m so glad. September — there was something about it, this time around. There is summer. There is fall. And there is another season that happened within me — that season where things pull your interior life apart, then piece it back together, slowly and without permission or control.

That’s my season, and I feel as if I have come to the eye of the storm, or to the end of it. Not sure which. It’s a sweet space that I am in now. I’m grateful for the abundance September has offered.

Given the state of the world at present, I feel like I’m not the only one experiencing this season of deep change. My go-to when things fall apart is body-movement: when I was a teenager, I ran. Three miles. Always, at least three. It is a number that is spiritual and predictable, and in my control. When I was a young adult, I also ran. Heart and mind pounding as the angst of the world swirled all around me. Each meditative step was a chance to bring in breath and let it out, tuning my body and mind into a space that said, “stop and think, then act.” At the end of my run, there was a quiet space. That space was my yoga.

In 1998, my yoga was named. It held a philosophy that was analyzed, shared, pre-determined. A recipe for calm. Now my go-to was not only running and breathing, but an act of rolling out a mat and holding my body in one shape, then another, uttering Sanskrit monikers and letting the rigor of one pose, and then the next, turn the waters of my mind into smooth glass.

It was all yoga then, and it’s all yoga now. After every unsettling event created a ripple, I had a place to go. That’s what yoga gives: a preparation for the fact that those ripples will come. That sometimes they are not ripples but tall waves, crashing with a power that can turn rock to sand.

Yoga is the poses. Each asana is an offering and a metaphor, a chance to show resilience and faith for the truth of that precise moment. The whole moment, exactly as it is — not how we may revise it, mentally, to fit a cause or a theory, or to please the ego. But it’s own actual paint-on-canvas reality. It’s own snapshot. As is, and without polish. Each practice is satya, truth — a physiological reset that clears out the muck, and makes room for freedom and grace.

Yoga is the breath. Each inbreath and outbreath an anatomy of life, and a focus that, when respected, can transform, cleanse, heal.

Yoga is fluid movement — a poem of the body. Each practice it’s own artistic piece, if approached with a sense of openness and acceptance.

Yoga is love. It is life. It is grace, happiness and union. It is every complete moment, in its most honest space, with nothing missed. Nothing taken for granted.

Yoga is everything, everywhere, all the time. It is not just a means to a fit body, but it is that. It’s not just a coping mechanism, but it is also that. It’s not just any one thing or any of all things. It is the thing. Where we are, where we once were, and where we are all are headed. All at once.

In my nation, things are fitfully playing out, and reforming into something else. In my local community, things are fitfully playing out, and reforming into something else. In my own life, the same. The symmetry I now see is so odd and beautiful, at times terrifying, and at times just like ripples on water. As I stop and watch all this rapid change, with absolute awe, I find the pace stunning. Hard to grasp.

Yoga is for that. When the pace is too much — too hard to grasp. When we move, flow, breathe, and focus on only that movement and breath, for just an hour or two, we give ourselves over to something greater: an energy of fierce calm, of total immovable stillness. In that way, we create a peaceful space within ourselves, and give the moment within us a chance to ripple outward.

Hate spreads, but love does too. Make your ripples calm, sweet, still. In doing that, make others calmer, more still, and strong enough to endure change, and face it with strength. To avoid the urge to lash out or withdraw — to create a space within all of us that is so strong, it can be steady in the midst of chaos.

What if everyone did that? What if everyone did yoga?

Jana Hill is a yoga instructor and writer. She practices and teaches on Camano Island, and in Stanwood.


Year One: Ah, beautiful freedom

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor and Marketing Assistant and Freelance writer/editor …

Well, it’s been a full year in my new professional path. One year ago, I suspended my freelance writing-and-editing business, and decided to focus on being a yoga instructor.

Now, when asked, “What do you do?” I answer, “I’m a fitness instructor — um, a yoga instructor, and a marketing assistant. I teach yoga, mostly.”

But, you’re distracted. We should stop and clear something up. You’re thinking, “What?! This is ‘Bennu Yoga’ — yoga. You teach yoga. You are not a “fitness” anything. Stay focused.

Well, you’re right and you’re wrong. Like freelancing, yoga-instruction ebbs and flows, and requires some diversity in order to keep working, keep providing for the home life. Because, while yoga is one of those professions that people say they would do for free — and we all would because it is awesome — the reality is that matching-up needs in a multi-employer life is tricky. And, making money is essential.

The distinction between being a yoga instructor only, and a lots-of-things worker, relates to a lesson learned in my freelancing era. It was about living in the “now” you’re given, not the “now” you would prefer. Or assume  you’d prefer — because a “now” you don’t have is not real.

It’s a yoga-thing. Stay with me, here.

But, first, a step back in time: in 2006, I left an on-staff, standard-job life, at a newspaper. and opened a freelance business shortly after. Business ownership wasn’t what I wanted — it wasn’t the “now” I imagined. But, as I reflect on it, it was “perfect.” Flexible. Varied. Challenging.

Ah, beautiful freedom!

In that era, I developed my own brand and my own specializations. And I learned how to politely and firmly say “no,” about a thousand different ways. Because when you cast a wide net in freelancing, people occasionally come back with a common narrative — one that is seemingly born of the Internet era, but probably has its roots in any recession-era.

It’s a long story, so I’ll be concise — many would-be clients in freelance writing and editing want people to work for free. Or less than free — meaning the writer covers her own costs, and is paid nothing. I turned down those clients, but the waste-of-time element is always one I recall with puzzlement.

Ah, beautiful freedom!

As in all things, with the bad came the good. I collected up some regard: I landed some sweet gigs and impressive projects. And because of my freelance experiences, I have a deep respect for the small business owners who have employed me in the past year — my first year in a new profession.

No one in my fitness industry has been so crass as to expect me to work for free. And, if they did, I bet they’d call it a volunteer position — because that is honest. I’m impressed by the openness and generosity in a field that is populated with mostly very small businesses.

So, what did I learn, and how do I transfer that to yoga-lady talk? I learned that owning your place always matters. That finding people “like you” works out. That it’s not only okay to turn down work when you don’t have any in-hand, it’s imperative.

I learned that yoga is still yoga, and it is everywhere. And as I recall all this, I also learned that I am still a bit sad that the Internet ate my profession. But I love my new one. I am  accepting my “now,” as it is. I’m now a marketing professional, albeit part-time. I now teach yoga and other types of movement: sometimes I teach a little, sometimes I teach a lot. And, on that now-note — back to yoga.

Yoga is liberation. Ah, beautiful freedom!

It is peace and joy. It is radical attention to exactly right now, regardless of what right now is like. The goal-less goal in yoga is finding your way into what I refer to as “The Peace Bubble.” When you get into a pose, or a moment, where there is nothing else. No racing mind. No thoughts of “later.” No regrets of “before.” Just a safe space, all around you, and an awake kind of feeling, knowing that you are here, and are not trying to change it. You’re just in it.

And more than anything else, I learned that things can change and change again, and all you can really do is keep moving. Just like we do in a flow class.

Tapas, anyone?

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

Okay, now you’re expecting a recipe — and I’ll admit when I hear the word it kind of makes me hungry. Mmmmm — tapas. It also makes me want to travel to Spain, because I saw an Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode on tapas, and bar-hopping. (I’d like to doll this up, but I’ve watched enough of his shows that I think he’d be most comfortable with the term “bar hopping.”) The whole things sounded quite elegant — he bought a nice glass of wine everywhere he went, and was billed for the wine but the food was free. Carefully prepared, whole-food appetizers were free. Wow, right? For those of us used to the best, cleanest whole-food options at three-times the price, or more — well, that looked pretty amazing. Possibly worth a plane ticket. But I will rant and rave about the cost of a clean diet later on.

Anyway — where was I? Big tangent there. Um, tapas, yoga-style. In yoga, tapas is the practice of burning off impurities. Generally, it is an attempt to cleanse the body and mind.

In my classes, we practiced tapas by changing small things. We moved our mats and played completely different music. We also used a wall in one class, because I had never taught a class using the wall. And, that’s it. It sounds oddly simple, but like many yoga practices, it’s simplicity is the point.

As the New Year rolls out, and month-two of 2016 rolls in, most people are looking at their resolutions and finding out that brain-chemistry and body-memory are powerful forces. We code our brains. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. But as we move, breathe, live life, we tell the brain “I do this thing, this way.” It’s body memory, muscle memory, and brain-coding all combined, preparing to quickly and easily recreate the day that happened before — it’s a snap-to-it action that favors stasis.

Our bodies like stasis.

Your body remembers your experiences, your movements, and your tendencies. The mind-body connection is coded to protect you, and to make your day easier by remembering what to do and when. One person’s body says, “this is safe,” while another person’s body says, “I am in serious danger.”

Consider that mind-body connection in a practical way. When you’re in a Child’s Pose in yoga, many people find it comforting — it’s the fetal position. You’re mimicking that place and time when you were enveloped and safe, where it was quiet and controlled, and you had a general idea that everything would stay that way. Some trauma victims may end up feeling the opposite: the fetal position may be one they curled into to protect themselves, during an attack. Both people are drawing on body-memory — the brain’s understanding of what to do, when the body is in “this shape” or “this environment.”

State-dependent memory is further proof of the mind-body connection — if you learn something while standing in a pool or smelling the scent of vanilla, that same information will be easier to recall if you are in the pool, or smelling the vanilla.

Tapas practice takes advantage of that mind-body coding, by changing the norm, and disrupting that sense of comfort and familiarity.

In yoga, the goal is to be “present” with that experience, and notice what happens in you. In your body. In your mind. In your breathing. Just move and watch, watch and move. Yoga is like that. You practice, move, breath, then you watch what unfolds, in you. In your body and mind.

I didn’t ask my students what happened, because if they want to tell me, they will.

In me, the tapas practice allowed me to notice things I did not see before — I experienced a sense of audiovisual presence that was more objective, more detailed. When you undo your norm, you smooth out your rut, and the brain stops telling the story before it happens. You see things more clearly and accurately. A different act disrupts what the brain expects.

The sky and mountains were beautiful today. They don’t move. I could notice them daily. Often, I don’t.

Try it. Take a different route, on the way home. If you usually start your day with oatmeal, try something else. Anything, really. If you end your day with red wine, drink cran-raspberry juice from that same wine glass, and pay attention to what happens.

If you usually growl at the first person you see at work, soften your tone and see how that changes the day. If you usually cower at the first growling person you see at work, stare that person straight in the eye, and check out what that does. Find your opposite act, and try it on for size.

Try a mindful change. Then another. Then another. And just watch what happens.





Nothing to see here — just a little Namaste

By Jana Hill
Bennu Yoga owner

I came to yoga to find some peace. I was drowning in the deadlines and details of my journalism training, and the stress was overtaking me. My first class was in Bellingham, at Yoga Northwest — and it was love at first toe-tingle.

My toes actually did tingle when I left that day, and noticing my toes made me realize that the “body awareness” and “mind-body connection” thing were not just words uttered by uber-cool people, milling about the food co-op before driving off in microbuses. I went to college in Bellingham, after all, and people with those descriptors were more plentiful than average — they said yoga would do this, increase awareness and bring about calm. And they looked pretty darned calm to me — must be the yoga, right? I figured they may be onto something. Maybe this mind-body connection thing, this body-awareness thing, maybe it had a science to it. It must. I felt it.

Then a decade whizzed by, and several years more. I’ll abbreviate the yoga-related bullet points that have occurred since my first yoga class, in 1998:

  • News jobs, desk work, lots of sitting with few breaks.
  • Long commutes, more sitting.
  • Little back tweaks. More sitting.
  • Sitting, stressing out, and sitting.

Then, late in 2006, pah-twang, my mid-back went out, much wailing ensured, much ibuprofen was swilled, and things just got worse from there.

I left my job, and hobbled home to be a stay at home Mom and freelancer, because the printing press does not come to a halt until you heal. Newswork is just like on the movies — trust me. It’s fast.

That was big. That was my dream job, and I left it. It was the biggest act of yogic surrender I had ever performed — to avoid the struggle, push, and insistence needed to make things be the way you want them to be, instead of accepting them for what they are. And that, my dear friends, is what yoga is, and what your practice does. We move, attentively, and accept today as it is — in doing that, those move-and-accept-as-is habits spill into daily life.

My teaching style, and the words I offer to guide people through a practice — those all derive from that experience. I offer my practice to other people.

In flow classes, my practice is difficult, because I have leaned on it to wring out some very tough moments. Soft-and-gentle yoga is not my medicine: my sequences are felt the next day. I lean toward noisier music, because my head is noisy — I figure other people have noisy heads too. Yoga is my go-to. It is an outlet. It is medicine, and it is a release.

I also treasure yoga as a spiritual home, and in some ways, it is like a friend. But I do not utter many spiritual quips while in class. And, recently, I heard one of my students notice that — she said she had spiritual conflict in some classes, but did not feel that way in mine.

My spiritual messaging in yoga is subtle to the point of utter silence. It’s there, but I don’t verbalize it much — we move it. Mindfulness training through physical yoga is like an invisible hand, reaching out and turning the lights on.

I hope that everyone in the world practices yoga. If you don’t click with my class, I’ll help you find one that will work for you.

I’ll end with the one and only spiritual comment I make in my classes — Namaste. I’ve sought out many translations and explanations, but the way I see it, it means “My spirit says ‘hi’ to your spirit.”

See you in class. I’ll work you hard, then at the end, maybe our spirits will say, “hi.”